Australian War Memorial Fromelles tour, 2010

19 February 2010 by Peter Burness

A  unique and remarkable ceremony of Australian national significance will be conducted in France on 19 July 2010.  It will be the culmination of the long search for those killed, and whose bodies were never recovered, in the disastrous Battle of Fromelles in French Flanders 94 years ago.  Now discovered, 250 bodies are finally being laid to rest in the specially constructed Fromelles Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery.  The first burials of these Australian and British soldiers commenced on 30 January this year. After the fighting in 1916, the Germans had gathered the bodies into pits.  Now, these soldiers have been reinterred through February, one by one, with each subsequent day’s burials conducted as a formal military funeral with a bearer party and padre in attendance.  Evidence has been taken from each of the bodies which may lead to some of them being identified.  From April permanent headstones will be placed over the graves, and it is expected that some of them will bear soldiers’ names.  The main concluding ceremony in July will commemorate the battle, honour all those who took part, and formally mark the completion of the archaeological excavations and the reinterment of all those whose bodies which were found on the outskirts of Pheasant Wood at the edge of the small village of Fromelles.  A large attendance of dignitaries, families, locals, and public is expected. British, French and Australian media will cover the event.  I will have the privilege of attending the ceremony accompanying a battlefield tour group arranged by the Australian War Memorial, and Boronia Travel Centre.  Anyone can join the party, and you are encouraged to sign up early by contacting the agent ph. +61 (03) 9762 2111) or the Memorial ph. +61 (02) 62434 3243).  The occasion will have special meaning for me.  I have made the journey to the Western Front more than 20 times and have seen numerous battlefields.  But the Fromelles ceremony will be a unique event.  The war cemeteries adjoining battlefields are always deeply moving.  Sometimes I have had the honour of being in the company of veterans or those whose father or a relative fought there. Looking at the surviving evidence, after considering the battles that were waged and the lives that were lost, one also sees the immense effort that occupied a generation of workers to ensure that those killed were remembered.  The cemeteries are still meticulously maintained.  The new Pheasant Wood cemetery is a revival of that activity; it is the first Commonwealth War Graves Commission First World War cemetery constructed since the immediate post war years.   Travelling in an Australian battlefield group is sometimes emotional, often fun, and always fulfilling.  Joining a group with a common interest and mutual sense of pride creates strong bonds.  I will accompany the group in my familiar role as historian-guide.  Our agent, the most experienced in the field, is there to provide personal attention and to ensure a high standard of accommodation, meals, and travel.  It is reassuring to know that things will go right.  Fromelles, and the unique ceremony there, is the special focus for this tour.  However it is important to remember that this was just one of many major battles fought by the Australian Imperial Force on the Western Front.  Most were longer and in many the total casualties were higher.  Places such as Pozieres, Bullecourt, Ypres, Zonnebeke, Passchendaele, Amiens, Villers-Bretonneux, Peronne, and Mont St Quentin are among those of similar importance to Fromelles.  They too will be remembered.  The battlefield tour runs from 5 – 22 July.  It will go to all the First World War places of major importance to Australians.  We will visit the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux and participate in the Last Post ceremony at the historic Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres.  I will be there to provide historical background, an explanation of each place visited and to introduce you to our friends in France.  There will also be time to see Paris and go to Verdun and the famous Champagne region.  Battle of Fromelles in brief: Australians were thrilled by the stories of their troops’ exploits on Gallipoli in 1915. The next year, in early 1916, the Australian divisions finally joined the British army in France and Belgium.  At last they had arrived in the war’s main battle theatre.  Here, on the Western Front, they met a new form of fighting.  At first the Australians were in a relatively quiet sector in France.  Still, there were periods of stiff fighting, shelling, and some heavy raids; by the end of June over 600 men had been killed.  But by now the British main efforts had shifted to the Somme 100 kilometres away to the south.  Resulting from heavy British losses, the Australians were soon drawn in. While three divisions went to the Somme, the most recently arrived division, the 5th, remained in French Flanders.  There it went into the trenches opposite the shattered village of Fromelles which sat on commanding ground behind the German front line.  British troops had fought around Fromelles in 1915, with heavy losses, but the village would soon give its name to a fresh disaster.  On the evening of 19 July the Australian 5th Division and the British 61st Division attacked the Fromelles ridge in a diversionary attack intended to draw German attention from the allies’ Somme operations.  In the front line with bayonet fixed, a soldier of the 53rd Battalion, 5th Division, is captured by the camera shortly before the disastrous attack at Fromelles on 19 July 1916. The two divisions chosen for this battle were both new to the sector and lacked local battle experience.  The men had to assault over open fields criss-crossed with drainage ditches and in the face of heavy machine-gun and artillery fire.  Many fell, while others were overwhelmed by German counter-attacks.  The attack failed, with 5500 Australian casualties, and no ground was taken.  It was a cruel introduction to major combat, one from which the 5th Division was a long time recovering.  Brigadier General H.E. “Pompey” Elliott, a veteran officer who commanded the 15th Brigade in the battle, later said:

“Practically all my best officers, the Anzac men who helped build up my brigade, are dead.  I presume there was some plan at the back of the attack but it is difficult to know what it was”.

 Extract from: Peter Burness, Anzacs in France, 1916. (2006). Peter Burness is Senior Historian at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra More information: